RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration spent months discussing a South Carolina Indian tribe’s proposal to build a gambling casino in North Carolina, an idea that the governor’s office later downplayed as a “local initiative” after news of the plan surfaced, the News & Observer of Raleigh reported.
Internal documents released under the state public records law show the talks about a proposed casino in Kings Mountain off Interstate 85 started in April, included two of the governor’s top economic advisers and covered revenue sharing that could have meant millions of dollars for the state treasury, the newspaper reported Sunday. McCrory aides twice briefed the governor and communicated regularly with attorneys for the tribe.
News that the Catawba wanted a casino about a half-hour west of Charlotte surfaced in August, drawing objections from social conservatives and some state legislators. The following day, an internal McCrory administration memo told officials to emphasize that “the governor’s office has not actively engaged this project” and “never had any direct contact with the Catawba tribe.”
McCrory received another briefing about the casino more than a week after the project went public, and gave his staff “clear instructions not to proceed,” McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo said. By early September, McCrory himself was rejecting a Catawba casino.
“I’ve seen no argument to justify it whatsoever,” McCrory told a reporter while attending the annual meeting of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs
The degree of involvement by the Republican governor’s administration is surprising, said John Rustin of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, which opposes the casino.
“It was very difficult to get any handle on what was going on and substantiate the fact that major decisions were taking place,” Rustin said. “It’s an extremely controversial project ... and the fact it took so long for this to come to light is particularly interesting.”
The South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation is pushing ahead without an agreement to share profits with North Carolina.
The tribe filed an application this summer with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to place 16 acres of land near King Mountain into trust for the tribe. The 2,800-member tribe already has land in trust in York County, S.C.
The tribe said the 220,000-square-foot casino, 1,500 hotel rooms, plus restaurants and shops would create more than 3,000 permanent positions on top of hundreds of construction jobs. Cleveland County’s unemployment rate was 7.6 percent in November, above the statewide average of 6.9 percent.
The Eastern Band of Cherokees already operates a busy casino in western North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains.
Like the Cherokees, the Catawba Nation sought a casino that offered live table games such as blackjack, craps and roulette, according to a previously undisclosed draft of a gambling compact between the tribe and the McCrory administration. In exchange, the state would have received a 4 percent or greater cut of the gambling proceeds.
Butch Bowers, a prominent Columbia, S.C., attorney, served as lead negotiator for the tribe’s management company. Bowers has defended South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on state ethics charges and in September, the McCrory administration hired him to defend a lawsuit challenging the state’s new election law and voter ID requirement.
The governor’s office said last week that Bowers is no longer working on the Catawba project, but a tribe spokeswoman said he still represents their management company.
Discussions that McCrory aides had with the tribe’s attorneys represented a diligent examination of the project and not an indication of interest, Genardo said.
“When you are presented with something, you have to go on a fact-finding mission,” she said.